Why do we seem so intent on destroying our shared history and, in the process, destroying ourselves? Left, right, conservative, liberal, a hundred names simultaneously representing both our divisions and strident beliefs. We know how self-destructive we’ve become even as we swing the bat for our heartfelt political views for the umpteenth time. It may not surprise you that there are logical reasons why we do this, even to our detriment.
A friend sent me an article referencing a name that promised answers for issues unclear to me and many others. Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and author who has concentrated his studies on morality and emotions. He explains that rationalizing emotions is the foundational understanding of why people act emotionally, frequently against their own self-interest. Confusingly, the more they act against their interests, the more fervent they appear about it.
The ‘Elephant and the Rider‘ is a metaphor for Haidt’s observations of social intuitionism. That is, the notion that intuitions come before rational thought. In other words, the social constructs we feel compelled to follow, regardless of logic or how our actions can and will take us down paths, frequently don’t lead us where we thought we were going. The Rider is conscious thought, while the elephant is the hair-trigger intuition we are hard-wired to follow.
Previously, I discussed Trump and Abortion as examples of how we tie ourselves to concepts and beliefs that aren’t logically resolved for many, even after rigorous intellectual debate. Virtually all of us have experienced talking to someone who views the same underlying fact set yet comes up with an entirely different conclusion. It is frustrating not to understand this dichotomy, leaving too many of us dissatisfied, hurt, or angry. Families, friends, and even our political leaders disagree, leaving us lost in bridging emotional and logical divides. How can we come together if we can’t understand and compromise on any given set of facts? For some, facts are fungible and can mean whatever you want, which is a logical fallacy. One plus one must always equal two, and no one can change that! Increasingly, this is not universally understood.
Haidt developed his Moral Foundations Theory, composed of five primary values that describe our tendencies to adopt a particular set of moral proclivities. They are:
Here’s where it gets interesting. Haidt has studied the behaviors and thought patterns of many who see themselves as either strongly conservative or liberal. He’s found and tested his hypothesis many times and found a strong correlation with political beliefs and which of the above tenets people embraced. In particular, liberals tend to primarily endorse the care and fairness tenets, whereas conservatives tend to support all foundations more equally. I can already see the disagreement brewing between the two sides! Suppose, for a moment, we could see, understand and then act on the biases that move us in one direction or another. In that case, we might overcome our built-in tendency to jump to a specific conclusion without adequate thought.
How many of us care enough to want to do the right thing instead of what we are hard-wired to do? In the absence of logic-based thought, fallacious assertions become not only possible but likely. As I wrote this, I heard about yet another senseless school shooting; it took the lives of three children and three adults in Nashville. The shooter was a 28-year-old, self-proclaimed ‘Trans’ man who prepared extensively before committing her heinous crime. Police are withholding a ‘manifesto’ from the public that might help our understanding. The easy and popular answer is that mental illness must be a primary factor in these premeditated school shootings. But if that isn’t the true answer, what else could it be?
Perhaps, as a society, we’ve encouraged and allowed specious structural thinking, which makes sense to a small subset of fragile individuals. Could this be the root cause of what triggers them to kill, wound, and maim, even with an expectation they’ll likely be killed in the process, bypassing society’s penalties? Two of Haidt’s values seem to have removed the social interlocks which restrain sane, thoughtful people from acting out on their ‘insane’ ideas, even as their actions may seem logical to them at the moment.
There are values that Heidt says sometimes empower evil acts:
Many emotionally frail individuals live peacefully today, and most will never pick up a weapon to settle imaginary scores. But, out of millions of damaged minds, hundreds, if not thousands, harbor a desire to make their lives more meaningful by righting supposed wrongs, hoping to become successful, even memorable, by unleashing horrendous violence.
But why now? Why is this kind of behavior happening more frequently despite the horror and negative publicity it generates? By now, the knowledge we have gained should help us identify the fragile among us who have somehow overrode their internal circuit breakers. Some of these individuals seem activated through strident social rhetoric, believing they are on a personal mission of redemption.
Powerful forces try to contort and control narratives for their own purposes. As an example, Biden says the solution is to ban assault-style weapons. But this shooter also carried a pistol and had an even more deadly illegal sawed-off shotgun at home. The shooter had gone through a lawful background check for all weapons. It is folly to believe a well-planned and patient attack such as this would have been thwarted by tighter gun laws. But that’s what Biden wants you to think.
The Trans lobby may attempt to expand the rights of Trans individuals by blaming transphobic people who did not give the shooter the proper respect, thereby forcing her to kill those children! These won’t be the only lobbies that somehow piggyback on this tragedy to further their agenda.
Why don’t we focus on the values that conservatives gravitate towards just as much as the first two:
I direct you to the Moral Foundations Theory hyperlinked above for a better understanding. People who strongly identify with the concepts of Harm and Fairness and who tend to minimize Authority, Ingroup, and Purity in their thinking have a marked tendency to reject traditional norms. In extreme cases, holding grudges against the system entitles them to do things most of us find repugnant.
I am mindful of gross oversimplifications. Ultimately, we cannot endlessly be at war with ourselves. Factor in the damage we do to ourselves, our children, our communities, and our never-ending internal turmoil. It also opens the door to internal and external enemies that seem to have no end and are rapidly capitalizing on our internal stresses.
Rather than warring with ourselves, wouldn’t our energies be better spent building a better tomorrow towards a shared vision? Reflecting on the Elephant and the Rider, conscious thought vs. intuition must be more fully understood. Once we do, we’ll be in a much better position to teach our children that how we think is as important as what we think.
God Bless America!
Allan J. Feifer